Feast Day: First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
It’s a central part of our liturgy and indeed of the Christian faith itself and yet it is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of our faith partly because it is literally unprecedented. It is an event that we simply have no frame of reference for and yet each time we gather to worship we confess it. There it is in the middle of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And again as we ask God’s blessing on the bread and wine: “Therefore, Father, according to his command, we remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
The Church believes, based on the Bible and the teaching of the Apostles, that one day, one hour, the risen and living Jesus Christ will come again and that he will do so in glory, to set things right. And so the Christian faith and life is about living in anticipation of this event so that all the world might see and know.
That’s why it’s so important to slow down and observe the season of Advent and not just rush straight to Christmas when the calendar turns to December. The English word Advent is derived from the Latin adventus which means “coming.” Over the next four weeks this will be the central theme: Jesus Christ is coming. He has come, yes, as an infant. That’s what Christmas is all about. But Advent is it’s own time where we await not only the coming of the infant Jesus at Christmas but also, especially, the coming of king Jesus at the end of the world.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “We only understand life backwards, but we must live forwards.” Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Church and yet it begins at the end, with the promised return of Christ. Because it is only in light of the end that we can rightly understand our lives and “live forward” in a way that coheres with that end. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
What do we learn about the return of Christ from our readings this morning? It is near and it is unknown. It is coming (soon even!) but we do not know when. In fact, it will spring up unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. Consider the days of Noah, says Jesus. Everything was totally normal right up until the day that Noah entered the ark and the flood came. The coming of the Son of Man will be like that, says Jesus.
In Noah’s day folks were wining and dining. All was well! The good life! There was an indifference about God. An immersion in the everyday without thought for the Last Day (Bruner). Is our day much different? Do I live my life like I really believe Jesus is coming again or do I live as if he had not promised to return? At the moment everything is normal but then suddenly, unexpectedly, it will all change. Is this an occasion to worry about the future? No. It is rather an occasion to be expectant and hopeful. Simply be ready to do the work that God has given you to do today. That’s what it means to “Keep awake.”
Let’s sum up what we’ve said so far this way: Jesus Christ is going to come again in the future but in the present Christians are invited to live like this has already happened. “O come, let us [presently] walk in the light of the Lord,” says Isaiah.
The early Christians understood this. In fact, St Paul seemed to believe that Jesus would return in his own lifetime so his writings contain a certain urgency. For example, consider our reading from Romans this morning and how they echo and expand upon Christ’s words in the gospel. “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near,” (13:11-12a).
The night is gone and the day is near. In fact, now is the moment to wake up. You see, what Paul and the early Christians came to realize was that in baptism we have, in a very real sense, already arrived at the great day of judgement. Or rather, as St Paul himself writes elsewhere, the end of the world has come upon us (1 Corinthians 10:11). A third century Christian named Origen put it this way: “In a certain sense, the end of the world has already come for the person to whom the world is crucified. And to one who is dead to worldly things the day of the Lord has already arrived.”
And if this day has, in a sense, already arrived for Christians what then? Well, says St Paul, “live honourably.” Live this way now. “Not in reveling and drunkenness,” that is, be sober-minded and level headed. “Not in debauchery and licentiousness,” that is, do not sin but obey Christ. “Not in quarreling and jealousy,” but rather love one another as God in Christ has loved you.
Maybe some of us have been drifting off to sleep. Maybe some of us have been living like it’s still night time. Hear the word of God this morning. Jesus Christ has brought you out of darkness and into the light. He is coming again to judge. That day is near and has indeed come. Do not delay. Do not put it off until later on. Do not give sin a foothold. Now is the moment for you to wake up.
Let me say one more thing. When Jesus says, “Therefore you also must be ready,” what he is describing is a process. The phrase translates literally as, “You must be becoming ready.” Because it takes time to get ready. It takes time to learn hope. It takes time for the Lord to perfect his love in you.
Understand that the Christian life is a journey, a pilgrimage. It is a process whereby we learn over time what it means to say ‘yes’ to our Lord and stay near to him. As we resist temptation, as we fall into sin and seek forgiveness, as we pray and struggle to pray, as we learn the discipline of reading the Bible, as we bear with one another in love, as we grow weary and drift off to sleep and wake up again, as we go to church and receive the sacraments, in all these ways and more God is making us a ready people. A people who live in the light even now.
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Friends, Advent begins at the end and invites us to examine our lives and consider the extent to which we are living in the light. May God himself strengthen our hearts and prepare us so that we can live in the light of that day, this day.